Cortés is a major organized crime hub. Vast quantities of drugs, arms, and contraband pass through the department’s busy Atlantic port – Puerto Cortés – on a daily basis.
The port is a short distance from the departmental capital, San Pedro Sula, and the border with Guatemala, making it an important transit destination for illicit products, such as cocaine and illegal arms or contraband entering the country by sea.
San Pedro Sula is the center of operations for various criminal groups involved in the drugs and arms trade, human trafficking, and human smuggling.
Mara Salvatrucha (MS13): The MS13 operates facilities for measuring out and preparing drugs for local sale on San Pedro Sula’s outskirts. Both the MS13 and its rivals from Barrio 18 have established invisible borders in neighborhoods such as Chamelecón. The gangs have installed checkpoints at the entrances to the communities, used to monitor these divisions. The MS13 mainly exerts influence in the southern part of Chamelecón and the neighborhoods of Morales, San Juan, San José, and San Isidro.
Barrio 18: This gang controls territory in northern Cortés and in the neighborhoods of Suyapa and San Antonio.
Arms Trafficking: Cortés is a significant transit point for illicit products, given that it houses Honduras’ main commercial port, and the country’s most important gangs –the MS13 and Barrio 18– have a permanent presence in the industrial city of San Pedro Sula. These groups are heavy consumers of legal and illegal weapons, including high-caliber firearms. Hence, we estimate that at least half of the 500,000 illicit arms that circulate in Honduras transit through Cortés, making arms trafficking a lucrative criminal economy in the department.
Cannabis: The main criminal actors involved in selling cannabis –the MS13 and Barrio 18– have a significant presence in Cortés. Gangs grow expensive types of cannabis in the department and also import it from other countries. Therefore, we estimate that this criminal economy generates significant revenues in the department.
Cocaine: Cortés houses Honduras' main port, and all of the country’s major cocaine trafficking routes pass through the department. Drug trafficking groups are either present or have emissaries in Cortés and use the city of San Pedro Sula as an operational hub. While the police seized only minor amounts of cocaine in Cortés in recent years, we estimate that the cocaine economy is large and lucrative.
Environmental Crime: Puerto Cortés and San Pedro Sula serve as storage, transit, and retail points for trafficked animal species, as well as for illegally extracted timber. This suggests the existence of at least a mid-size economy of environmental crimes.
Extortion: Extortion is rife within the department, generating revenues that reach into the tens of millions of dollars. Victims include hotel owners, taxi drivers, transport workers, bus companies, small businesses, apartment owners, and more.
Human Smuggling: In 2019, approximately 20,000 Honduran migrants were returned to Cortés after being deported from the United States and Mexico, a percentage of those who made the trip. Given the price of hiring a smuggler in the area (roughly $10,000), this appears to be a very lucrative criminal economy, reaching into the hundreds of millions of dollars. In addition to Honduran migrants, other Central American nationals, South Americans, Africans, and Asians also transit through Cortés on their way to the United States.
Human Trafficking: Cortés is part of a human trafficking and human smuggling route. Within the department, multiple properties, such as massage parlors and bars, are used as centers for prostitution. Most of the country’s relevant criminal actors have some degree of presence in San Pedro Sula, most notably the MS13 and Barrio 18. Therefore, we estimate that human trafficking is a moderate criminal economy in the department, which generates revenues reaching into millions of dollars.
Sources: This profile is based on a field trip to San Pedro Sula and three field trips to Tegucigalpa during which InSight Crime interviewed representatives of the Attorney General’s Office, military officers, national and local police officers, members of the National Anti-Gang Force (FNAMP), judicial officers, local crime experts, local NGO officers that work in gang-controlled areas, and women’s right activists, most of whom requested anonymity. InSight Crime also drew from information provided by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Honduran National Police, the Honduran National Statistics Institute, and the local press.